"The two men began the journey to the shore, without haste, a little awed, for both were close to the spirit of Australia so impervious to time and such finite matters as the birth and death of a lake. The distant bluff and the buildings upon its summits now were purpling, the shadows between the buildings like jet. The gulls flew on ahead, their color now of gentian and blue.”
Arthur W. Upfield’s Death of a Lake has to be a classic of its kind. The description above hints at the quality of Upfield’s writing.
Upfield’s story ends with a record-setting Australian heat wave, the death of Lake Otway, and the death of millions of rabbits and other living things. One hundred and twenty-nine degree heat kills animals and humans alike.
Barby, the hunter, traps tens of thousands of rabbits. He and the others from the Lake Otway sheepherding camp shoot kangaroos to keep them from destroying the nets which trap the rabbits. The sheep are gone by that time, moved to water elsewhere. The hunters skin two-thousand rabbits for the pelts. And all of this is in the context of what appear to be two murders.
A man named Gillen drowned. His body is surely in the water, but only the death of the lake will make that clear. Inspector Napoleon Bonaparte (Bony) poses as a horse breaker to investigate what he thinks might have been a crime. Others die along the way.
Inspector Bonaparte, the Australian half-cast, determines what happened and lays out the underlying greed behind it. He waits, watches, quietly observes, and only gently prods to find the truth.
At one point, Bony says, “All I need to do to earn my salary is to wait upon events, because the Spirit of Drama impels the actors to play their cues. A comfortable attitude to duty, don’t you think, Starface?” Starface is one of the horses Bony breaks and trains.
The mystery itself is just a cut above the ordinary, but, oh, the setting and description.
It is almost impossible to describe the power of the last fifty pages of this book. Written in the 1950’s, the book embodies the living Australian landscape in a way that makes that landscape breathe and live. I doubt I’ve ever read a closing like the closing in the last third of The Death of a Lake.
I ran across Arthur W. Upfield on a library discard table. I have four of Upfield’s Bonaparte books, and I’ve already read one. The first was very good, but this book is the better of the two I’ve read so far. I find it hard to conceive that Upfield ever wrote anything to top it.